(CN) – A former government employee who participated in the Trump administration’s policy of sending immigrants back to Mexico from the U.S. to wait out their asylum claims is now speaking out against the program, calling it an illegal process that endangers asylum seekers.
“It returns migrants to these extremely dangerous situations, it’s creating a risk to public safety, and it’s putting those individuals in significant danger of crime, violence and possibly torture,” Douglas Stephens, a former asylum officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told reporters on a phone call Monday.
“By making asylum officers, really any government official, including Border Patrol agents, implement the policy, the administration is really requiring officers to break the law,” he said.
Other government employees have in recent months criticized the program – formally called “Migrant Protection Protocols” and informally referred to as “Remain in Mexico” – as have human rights advocates who say immigrant families are being forced into dangerous, filthy conditions as they wait out their asylum cases at makeshift camps on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border.
This summer, in an amicus brief filed with the Ninth Circuit , a union representing U.S. asylum officers called the program “entirely unnecessary,” saying it counters the nation’s “longstanding tradition of providing safe haven to people fleeing persecution.”
Stephens has spread his concerns far and wide in recent days, outlining them in a story from the Los Angeles Times and radio show “This American Life,” as well as in a report criticizing the asylum program released by U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
The report includes an email Stephens sent to his supervisors in early August, after he refused to continue interviewing asylum seekers to determine if they were eligible to be sent back to Mexico.
Stephens, who was an attorney before becoming an asylum officer, outlines in the email a number of reasons he believes the program is illegal, claiming the policy is “clearly designed to further this administration’s racist agenda of keeping Hispanic and Latino populations from entering the United States.”
In a statement Monday, a Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesperson defended the program as lawful.
“USCIS takes very seriously our commitment, under international law, to not involuntarily return to Mexico any alien who would more likely than not be persecuted on account of a protected ground or tortured in Mexico,” the spokesperson said. “If at any time during the process an alien asserts a fear of return to Mexico, USCIS will interview that individual. If they meet the standard set forth in the guidance, they will not be returned to Mexico to await their next hearing.”
Ken Cuccinelli, until recently the acting director of USCIS, has praised the program, describing it in testimony to Congress last week as one of his department’s “most significant initiatives” to “restore a safe and orderly immigration process” and “decrease the number of aliens attempting to game the immigration system.” Cuccinelli has since been tapped for a more prominent job as deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency of USCIS.
On Monday, Stephens told reporters he had conducted five “Remain in Mexico” interviews with asylum seekers before resigning. All of them were from Central America, he said, with most of the children being preteens or young adults.
He described interviewing one man whose young son had seen cartel members torture and murder other migrants, after which the son received death threats himself.
“Multiple individuals were robbed by the Mexican authorities of all of their money and possessions and cellphones,” Stephens said. “Some individuals received threats on the train they were taking across Mexico or elsewhere.”
None of the people he interviewed were ultimately allowed to stay in the U.S. to wait out their asylum claims, he said.
Advocates with the American Immigration Lawyers Association told reporters on Monday they have additional concerns about transparency within Migrant Protection Protocols after having traveled to South Texas to witness court proceedings.
Andrew Nietor, an attorney and member of the group, said he and others witnessed courtroom scenes where an immigration judge and government attorneys spoke by video to an asylum seeker located at a separate facility. Some of the proceedings were not translated, he claimed.
“There are constant conversations between the immigration judge and the [government] attorney that aren’t even passed on to the asylum seeker,” Nietor said.
The criticism from advocates comes a day before a House Homeland Security subcommittee is set to hear testimony about the program from immigrant advocates, medical experts and the former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Stephens, for his part, said his intent in speaking out was “never to be a whistleblower or a rabble-rouser.”
“I really just wanted to reconcile with myself a policy that felt inherently problematic,” he said.